Category Archives: Foreign Policy

Long Live the King

This week was a thriller.

Bernie Madoff thought he was a smooth criminal. Turns out he’s just bad. Really, really bad.

SCOTUS says it don’t matter if you’re black or white.

The House has a bill it hopes will heal the world. Will the Senate tell them to beat it? (No one, after all, wants to be defeated.)

LGBT groups think Obama secretly wishes they’d just keep it in the closet.

And Mark Sanford is starting with the man in the mirror. He’s asking him to change his ways.

But we begin this week with a milestone in what’s become a millstone. American troops are withdrawing from Iraqi towns and cities today, effectively ending U.S. occupation of those areas.

The drawdown is part of a Bush Administration plan sketched out this time last year. Dick Cheney supported the plan at the time, but since the responsibility now belongs to the Democrats, he says it puts America in danger.

Iraq is the main course on a full foreign policy plate. President Obama condemned a weekend Honduran coup, and Iran is still wracked by fear—not to mention increasingly jittery about foreign interference.

Despite turmoil abroad, domestic issues take may top billing this week. Yesterday, two court verdicts set the tone. First, the Supreme Court overturned a lower court’s ruling against New Haven, Conn. firefighters who claimed they were passed over for promotion because they are white.

The lower court ruling was issued by a panel of three judges including Obama’s Supreme Court nominee Sonia Sotomayor. Will this ruling threaten her confirmation? Doubtful. Will it make the hearings more interesting? Darn tootin’.

The other verdict came from Manhattan, where convicted swindler Bernard Madoff got the maximum: 150 years in prison. Madoff cheated 8,000 investors out of hundreds of billions of dollars. His case has become a focus for Americans who’ve lost jobs, homes, and retirements to economic forces beyond their control. Madoff himself is now a symbol of greed and crookedness, and few people were sad to see him jailed.

Back in Washington, Congress turns its attention from the environment to healthcare, which is shaping up to be an ugly fight. Senate Republican leaders held a press conference today to declare a need for reform and a desire to block whatever Democrats come up with.

Speaking of the Democrats, President Obama has again turned the details of a major legislative priority over to a rudderless Congress (see this week’s Top 5). So far the strategy has worked, but eventually the House may need more direction from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue.

Other loose ends may affect the balance of power in Washington. Mark Sanford isn’t quitting (yet), but his plans to run for the White House in three years are on indefinite hold. He’s the second potential GOP 2012-er to flame out in the last two weeks.

The aforementioned House climate change bill may face well-entrenched opposition in the Senate. President Obama showed praiseworthy resistance (in the Blog’s humble opinion) to the House version’s protectionist clauses. Do the Democrats know what they think about trade policy?

And Al Franken is finally a Senator, but illnesses still keep Dems short of 60 votes.

And so the chaos continues. One final note this week: the Blog will be out of the office for the next month. Dry your tears. If you want to keep track of the Blog’s travels, check our sister blog.

See you in August.

Top 5

The week’s best political reporting and commentary…

CNN: “Jenny Sanford becomes the new political paradigm” by Gloria Borger.

The New York Times: “Baucus Grabs Pacesetter Role on Health Bill” by David Herszenhorn.

The Washington Post: “Despite Majority, Obama to be Tested” by Murray and Balz.

Real Clear Politics: “Alice in Medical Care” by Thomas Sowell.

TIME: “FDR: Getting it Right” by Bill Clinton.

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Tied to the Rails

We begin this week with a tragedy. No, not Jon and Kate’s divorce. No, not Ed McMahon, either. A D.C. Metro train jumped its tracks yesterday. METAPOR ALERT!

Already, President Obama is keeping an eye on what else might derail.

Let’s start with healthcare. The hospitals, doctors, and insurers are all aboard, but the price tag has fueled a mounting GOP criticism of Team Obama. Is the tiny GOP remnant on Capitol Hill yet powerful enough to stop this speeding locomotive? You betcha.

Congress is slated to begin sifting the specifics this week. Enough blue dogs are on the fence that the White House will have to do some courting, even if the House bill little resembles his requests.

Here’s the Blog’s take: for decades, we have been committing fiscal child abuse. The debts we continue to grow have implications for the security and health of Americans yet unborn. But we gotta, hafta, needta fix the healthcare system. If Congress can’t come up with something that will do the job, we need a new Congress.

As pressing and dire as healthcare reform is, the primary topic at this morning’s presidential presser was the Islamic Republic. Iran’s ruling clerics (some of them, anyway) began blaming the U.S. last week for the continuing protests over their recent presidential election.

Here’s why: protesters were mainly using Twitter to organize rallies. Twitter was supposed to shut down for maintenance one night last week. The State Department—broken arm and all—called the Twitter folks and asked if they’d stay online to help out the protesters.

Naturally, Iran’s leadership didn’t take kindly to that. Now, since we’re getting blamed anyway, the White House finally began putting direct pressure on Iran.

The past week’s events make Iran’s rulers look silly, and the U.S.—not to mention the Blog—doesn’t mind that one bit. This is a country that shoots protesters, tells women how to dress and what to do, that espouses bigotry and narrow-mindedness. But as always, dear reader, you must watch what Iran’s rulers do, and not heed what they say.

And despite tough talk, the Supreme Council is struggling with hard questions about democracy, human rights, and how government should work. They have ordered an official inquiry into the results and even admitted irregularities at the ballot box, atypical behavior for an autocracy.

So which will win out: popular sovereignty or religious pedantry? We’ll all have to stay tuned.

Beyond these major headlines, weird stuff keeps happening in politics. As previously mentioned, the Secretary of State has a boo-boo. The governor of South Carolina went missing, then found himself, and said he was just on a hike. And apparently shooting the messenger is now something we do.

It’s a mixed-up world, dear reader.

Top 5

The week’s best political reporting and commentary…

International Herald Tribune: “Iran’s Chinese Lessons” by Philip Bowring.

The New York Times: “A Supreme Leader Loses His Aura as Iranians Flock to the Streets” by Roger Cohen.

Bloomberg News: “Gods in White Coats Hold Key to Health Care Reform” by Margaret Carlson.

The Washington Post: “Public Confidence in Stimulus Plan Ebbs” by Balz and Cohen.

RealClearPolitics: “Hysteria from Right and Left” by Cathy Young.

A Chill in the Air

Summer officially starts this weekend, but it’s getting cold out there.

The AMA reacted coolly to President Obama’s healthcare plan. Iran’s elections may have a chilling effect on its relations with the United States. Senate Republicans want to freeze the Sotomayor proceedings until fall. And Sarah Palin is going all ice queen on David Letterman.

Bundle up, dear reader.

The president addressed the American Medical Association’s annual convention yesterday, outlining his healthcare policy to a new level of detail. If doctors, hospitals, and insurers can cut care costs, the president offered, government will also work to lower medical liabilities (right now, a doctor’s greatest expense is malpractice insurance).

Here’s where it gets frosty: the president said his plan may cost $1 trillion. For a federal budget buckling under the weight of bailouts, bankruptcies, and decade-old tax breaks, another trillion-dollar program makes everyone shudder. Think spending may become a political problem for the Democrats? You ain’t the only one.

Congress will soon undertake healthcare reform, but this week, it’s focused on the environment and new financial regulations. And Sonia: the GOP is hoping to stall for time, but it’s running up against a concerted White House media strategy.

The president’s primary international concern is (still) west Asia. Iran’s presidential elections have been fascinating to watch.

The incumbent, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, is a bigot who thinks America sucks. The challenger, Mir Hossain Mousavi, quit politics 15 years ago to become an architect. Mousavi wasn’t supposed to be the main opposition, but former president Mohammed Khatami thought he had no chance this go-round, so he dropped out.

That’s because until recently, Ahmadinejad was very popular. He is a hero to rural conservatives and the urban poor, whose causes he championed. But 70 percent of Iran is under 30 years old, and many young people find Iran’s current brand of theocratic authoritarianism suffocating. They want freedom, and Mousavi is their man.

Ahmadinejad won, but it looks like he may have cheated. Mousavi supporters have taken to the streets, and Iran’s ruling clerics have opened an investigation into the election results. New elections, or even hard evidence of cheating, are unlikely. But it’s interesting to watch a government testing out the mechanics of democracy, especially a government at the center of the world stage.

Meanwhile, there may be “tough months” ahead for Afghanistan, according to Gen. David Petraeus, who oughta know. The Blog wonders: “tough” as opposed to what? All the easy living Afghanistan’s been soaking up lately?

Pakistan isn’t doing much better.

Even our allies are raising a ruckus. Israeli PM Benjamin Netanyahu responded to President Obama’s recent call for a Palestinian state with a big “pfff.” Actually, Netanyahu said the Palestinians could have their own country, so long as that country didn’t have an army and so long as Israelis could continue trying to take over Palestine one settlement at a time. The Palestinians—and the Blog—find his munificence overwhelming.

Twenty years ago, the New York Times’ Tom Friedman (see this week’s Top 5) wrote that Israel’s big problem is that it can only have two of the three things it wants: to be 100 percent Jewish, 100 percent democratic, and occupy 100 percent of all the territory of Old Testament Israel. It can have any two, Friedman argues, but not all three. Israel has still not chosen.

Finally this week, the Blog presents a moment of absurdity. Guess who is conservatives’ newest worst enemy? This moment of absurdity has been brought to you by Sarah Palin, defender of all that is right.

Top 5

The week’s best political reporting and commentary…

The Washington Post: “Muted Response Reflects U.S. Diplomatic Dilemma” by Scott Tyson.

The New York Times: “Winds of Change?” by Tom Friedman.

Economist: “Tehran Rising.

Newsweek: “The Micawbers and Mrs. Roosevelt” by Jon Meacham.

Wall Street Journal: “White House Sends Signals on Deficit” by Gerald Seib.

Cogitation

Politics, dear reader, is a thinking person’s game. For example:

 

Barack Obama thinks Egypt would make a good setting for a much-anticipated statement to the Islamic world. Would-be assassins may think so, too.

 

Dick Cheney thinks Rush Limbaugh is a better Republican than Colin Powell. The White House thinks every time Cheney (or Limbaugh) opens his mouth, re-election becomes just a little easier.

 

Sec. Gates thinks Stan McChrystal will do a better job in Afghanistan than David McKiernan. The Blog thinks Gates wishes McKiernan’s ouster was still the biggest news at the Pentagon.

 

GOP boss Michael Steele thinks former Mass. Gov. Mitt Romney’s Mormonism might be a turn off for GOP base voters. Romney thinks Steele should stick it where the moon don’t shine.

 

Fla. Gov. Charlie Crist thinks being a senator might be fun. So (still) do Al Franken and Norm Coleman.

 

But the problem with thinking is it usually produces more questions.

 

Did Nancy Pelosi think silence was a good idea when she found out about torture? Did she think at all?

 

What will Congress think of the administration’s renewed healthcare push? And what will the president think of the bill congress eventually presents to him?

 

What was Wanda Sykes thinking when she called Karl Rove the 20th hijacker?

 

Of the events planned by the White House in the past week, none went better than the healthcare rollout (with the possible exception of the Tar Heel visit). But few policy proposals will face tougher challenges in coming weeks. As the NYT’s Robert Pear wrote, “There was something in [a revamped healthcare plan] for Mr. Obama, and something for the industry—though not necessarily the same thing. Their interests overlap but do not coincide.” Once Congress gets into it, Obama will need all his chips to control the stakes.

 

Obama’s control may be needed elsewhere first. Though the administration continues to project sunshine on the economy, many economists aren’t buying it. Nobody seems to dispute this: next year, the government will borrow 50 cents of every dollar it spends. Zoinks.

 

It’s not as simple as cutting waste from the budget. Obama will do that, but he must also fight tooth-and-nail for policy initiatives like carbon emissions, bank reorganization, and the aforementioned healthcare reform to keep his balance sheets in tact. If any one of those fails, the budget will have to be rewritten.

 

The president’s popularity remains high, which (as the Blog has argued before) is critically important. The president muted his reaction to Wanda Sykes’ out-of-line joke at last week’s White House Correspondents Association dinner, then gave a great speech of his own.

 

After the laughter comes tears (usually). Obama’s trek is as tenuous as it has ever been. He shoulders many heavy burdens, each tied to the other. Drop any one, and the rest may follow.

 

But he’s made it this far with a smile on his face, and for now, he trudges on.

 

Top 5

The week’s best political reporting and commentary…

 

The Washington Post: “Lawmakers Balk at Holding Guantanamo Bay Detainees in U.S.” by Perry Bacon Jr.

 

TIME: “Healthcare: Industry Steps Up. Maybe” by Joe Klein.

 

The Washington Post: “The Reticence in Broadcasting Network” by Dana Milbank.

 

Los Angeles Times: “Obama’s big bet on Pakistan” by Doyle McManus.

 

Real Clear Politics: “Catholic Political Divide Over Obama at Notre Dame” by Beth Fouhy.

 

On Deck:

You know you’re in trouble when…

 

…Democrats and Republicans agree you’re crooked.

 

…your best defense is “I thought it would be best if someone else wrote a strongly worded letter.”

 

…you face 29,000 counts of murder charges two weeks after the leader of the free world called genocide a global security threat.

On the Road Again

The Wrap: Constellations

How’d last week go?

 

If you were Barack Obama, three of four stars. Your speech to the joint session of Congress was widely praised as candid and bold, though it did require some interpretation and didn’t bring the deets at least one publication wanted. Your budget was also generally well-received, though many folks wondered how you were gonna cut the deficit. You also filled voids at HHS and Commerce, but you’ve learned not to count those particular chickens before they hatch.

 

If you were Bobby Jindal, one star. Good news: you got to rebut the president. Bad news: you forgot to rebut the president.

 

If you were the economy, you still get zero stars.

 

If you were Karl Rove, you get zero stars this week and docked one star from next week. Why, you protest? For this special little nugget of irony in your WSJ column: “Everyone resorts to straw men occasionally, but Mr. Obama’s persistent use of the device is troubling. Continually characterizing those who disagree with you in a fundamentally dishonest way can be the sign of a person who lacks confidence in the merits of his ideas.”

 

Top 5

The week’s best political reporting and commentary…

 

The Washington Post: “President’s Historic Message Balances Urgency, Optimism” by Daniel Pearlstein.

 

Newsweek: “Why Obama is Moving so Quickly” by Howard Fineman.

 

The New York Times: “Will Africa Let Sudan off the Hook?” by Desmond Tutu.

 

Huffington Post: “Restore the Republic” by Gary Hart.

 

The New York Times: “Paging Uncle Sam” by Tom Friedman.

 

Feature: On the Road Again

Secretary Clinton is abroad again this week, which gives the Blog another excuse to take a gander at Team Obama’s foreign policy. As you may recall, Secretary Clinton is just back from East Asia. There, her to-do list included stopping a sociopath from getting nukes, reversing a half-century of crankiness in Sino-American relations, and reintroducing the world’s largest Muslim nation to its most-famous long-ago resident.

 

This time, she’s hoping to establish peace in the Holy Land. As the Blog has previously argued, Palestine is the single greatest inhibitor to world peace. A solution would not fix the economy, reverse climate change, or even banish terrorism from the face of the planet. But it would prove that even the most intractable human problems can be solved.

 

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Middle East peace is the stickiest of wickets. It has religious, political, economic, and social components that reach back 5,000 years, and since the 1970s, precious little progress has been made.

 

While lower Manhattan still smoldered, the Bush Administration got religion (pun!) about Palestine, and it briefly appeared they might make substantial progress. But six years went by without a peep from the West Wing. In November 2007, the White House sponsored a conference in Annapolis, Maryland hoping to grind out a solution before the next election. No dice.

 

Plusses since Annapolis: Tony Blair and George Mitchell have agreed to help, Dick Cheney has agreed to go back to Wyoming, and backdoor negotiations between Israel and Hamas resulted in a brief ceasefire.

 

Minuses: A small war broke out and Israel seriously considered electing a rightwing nut-job prime minister. So we’re breaking even. The good news is folks are starting to take the issue seriously again. To succeed, they’ll have to work on three levels.

 

The direct, grandiose efforts must go on. George Mitchell must do what he did in Northern Ireland: maintain grace in public, and wield a machete behind the scenes. He must have the full weight and confidence of the White House. So must Tony Blair.

 

The private negotiations must continue, too. More often than not, real solutions are brokered in such a way that nobody wins a Nobel Peace Prize. None of the parties involved can afford to look soft in front of the world, but genuine compromise is possible out of the limelight. Israel, Fatah, and Hamas must have a locked door behind which to negotiate.

 

Finally, everybody has to have a seat at the table. This may be the most excruciating part. Until now, Iran and Syria have been roadblocks to peace. That’s why the Obama Administration has advocated direct talks with Tehran (though perhaps the Secretary of State would like to keep her odds-making to herself), and sent two emissaries to Damascus. No peace is possible if Israel is threatened by a soon-to-be-nuclear power to the east and by a Hezbollah outpost to the north.

 

Likewise Russia, China, Jordan, Egypt, and the Gulf states must be part of the process. Each has a vested stake in any arrangement. The impact of a workable settlement would be enormous for world affairs. Russia growls about U.S. plans to build a missile shield in Europe, which would guard against an Iranian launch. This morning, the press reported a secret message from Washington to Moscow: help us ensure Iran never becomes a nuclear power and we’ll scrap our shield plans. If we solved Palestine, Iran wouldn’t need nukes, we wouldn’t need the shield, and we could start working with Russia on issues like energy, trade, and human rights.

 

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These three processes working simultaneously may not provide a solution for years, but together they are the best and quickest hope for peace.

 

The White House has started well. George Mitchell is the right man for the job, and Secretary Clinton (private asides aside) may be the right woman. They have started by marshalling aid to Gaza, a necessary first step. But as they mend the material wounds of the December-January conflict, they must also begin triage on the political wounds. Left untreated, those may be far more damaging.

 

On Deck: Prognostications

As the Blog looks into its crystal ball, we predict this week will bring further proof that John Yoo is a total jerk (and not much of a lawyer), that CIA will once again be forced to wipe egg from its brow, and Sebelius and Locke’s confirmation proceedings will go smoother than those of their predecessors.

 

Looking further ahead, we see Jim Bunning being kicked by his own party (which Bunning has booted several times recently), a Lone Star throw down, and a nasty theme still building for administration nominees.

When in Beijing…

The Wrap: Over stimulated

Multiple choice: President Obama’s signature today on the stimulus bill ends a tug-of-war featuring too much/not enough…

 

A.)   …stimulus.

B.)   …bipartisanship.

C.)   …leadership.

D.)  All of the above

 

Many conservatives feel shut out of a process devoid of presidential leadership which produced a wasteful bill. Many liberals feel the bill doesn’t do enough, that Obama worked too hard to unsuccessfully woo Republicans, and that there were too many cooks in the legislative kitchen.

 

In an interesting retrospective, the WSJ (see Top 5) cites Obama’s decision to leave the specifics to Congress as the critical moment of the stimulus campaign.

 

Top 5

The week’s best political reporting and commentary…

 

Wall Street Journal: “Obama Strategy: Keep Lawmakers Close” by Jonathan Weisman and Naftali Bendavid.

 

The Los Angeles Times: “The Rise of Abigdor Lieberman” by M.J. Rosenburg.

 

Economist: “Speech Impediments.”

 

The New York Times: “Iran’s Inner America” by Roger Cohen.

 

TIME: “Will Beijing Respond to Clinton’s Diplomatic Wish List?” by Massimo Calabreisi.

 

Feature: When in Beijing…

Fresh off its domestic policy baptism, the Obama Administration is diving head-first into foreign affairs. Secretary Clinton departed today for Japan, Indonesia, Korea and China, kicking off the international edition of the “Yes We Can” tour.

 

She is a curious representative for this White House. During the campaign, her sharpest differences with Obama were on international issues, and she doubted aloud his foreign-policy experience and judgment. But they often saw East Asia through the same lens. Choosing that region as Clinton’s first destination underscores Asia’s expanding influence and the administration’s plans to engage there. In particular, there is great opportunity for revamped relations with China.

 

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Think of any mobster movie you’ve ever seen. What’s the underpinning motivation for almost every character? Respect.

 

When you think about Sino-American relations, try to think like a Corleone. For 50 years, China felt disrespected by the United States. This was mostly because we thought they were trying to blow us up.

 

Really, our mistrust of China is of deeper origin. America is about freedom of speech, of the press, of religion. We believe the rule of law applies equally to all people, that those who speak out against the government deserve extra protection from the government. (Note: we haven’t always rigidly adhered to these principles, but they’re what we aim for.)

 

Contrast that with China. It censors the press. It persecutes the devout. It makes examples of dissidents, from a handful of protesters to the entire nation of Taiwan. These differences boil down to questions of human rights, and for many years, human rights hang-ups prevented movement on many other issues. They resented our lecturing. It was disrespectful, and it got us nowhere.

 

How to show China respect and still make human rights progress? Focus on other things. We need China to finance our $10.7 trillion debt and they need our consumers to buy their goods, $266 billion worth last year. On climate change, the U.S. and China together produce more than half the world’s greenhouse gasses; any global solution must involve us both.

 

Meanwhile, globalization is making human rights advances harder to stop. It’s part technology—just ask Myanmar’s censors how they feel about Twitter. It’s part economics, too. Chinese markets and people are demanding more Western goods. Western ideas are never far behind.

 

Certain Machiavellian facets of our relations with China will persist. We will still use Japan and India as regional military counterweights, subvert Chinese support for dangerous North Korea, and arm Taiwan. And, when appropriate, we will still badger China about human rights. But the best way to bring about change in China’s human rights policy may be to focus our attention elsewhere.

 

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China’s human rights abuses aren’t okay, nor should they be a lower priority. But the definition of insanity is repeating the same action expecting a different result each time.

 

We’ve tried bellicosity with China over human rights. It hasn’t worked, and it’s slowed progress on other important issues like trade and climate change. If we approach our mutual interests respectfully, we can use them to accelerate China’s already-weakening grip on dissent from Tibet to Taipei.

 

The Obama Administration has signaled it will embrace this paradigm; Secretary Clinton’s climate envoy is traveling with her this week, but her human rights envoy is not. The message: our differences over human rights will no longer be the defining characteristic of our relationship.

 

On Deck: Who wants next?

If you’re Barack Obama and you’ve just survived the first major test of your administration’s power, what’s the next thing you would do? I’m guessing pick another fight isn’t what you had in mind.

 

Other items POTUS will have his eye on this week: his Senate replacement may face perjury charges, his Treasury Secretary needs a new bank plan (or any plan, some would argue), and a remix to ignition on the auto bailout. Lotsa luck, Mr. President.

Why Gitmo Matters

The Wrap: Strikes and Gutters

Last week the Blog wondered who would land the first elbow in the showdown between congressional Republicans and the White House. Answer? Both.

 

Wednesday the House approved the stimulus bill with zero Republican “ayes.” Obama won because it passed, but lost because he couldn’t deliver a bipartisan law. The GOP won because it found unity as the party of smaller government (a mantle it ceded during the Bush years), but lost because the bill passed anyway. By blaming congressional Democrats instead of the White House, Republicans steered clear of direct combat with a popular president and began driving a wedge between Dems at either end of Pennsylvania Avenue. As the bill goes on to the Senate, economists are still ambivalent. For some, the porridge is too hot; for others, too cold. Few seem to think it’s just right.

 

Gov. Blagojevich asked for leniency on Thursday. Quoth Blago: “I did a lot of things that were mostly right.” The impeachment vote was close: 59-0. We have to wait and see what happens next for Blagojevich. For now, meet new governor Pat Quinn.

 

Other notes: Eric Holder was confirmed after Arlen Specter dropped his opposition. The GOP has a new boss. Tom Daschle gave himself the boot, even though Geithner survived the same issues. Judd Gregg (R-NH) is the new Commerce nominee, but the Dems still can’t get to 60.

 

Top 5

The week’s best political reporting and commentary.

 

The New York Times: “Pointing to a New Era, U.S. Pulls Back as Iraqis Vote” by Alissa J. Rubin.

 

The American Spectator: “A Bleak Day” by Ben Stein.

 

The Washington Post: “School Reform That Works” by Bill Gates.

 

Economist: “Republicans Seeking Relevance” by Lexington.

 

TIME: “Blago Talks! (And Talks…)” by James Poniewozik.

 

Feature: Why Gitmo Matters

With all the tasks before President Obama, it might seem odd that his first act in office addressed torture. But then, the issue itself is hardly clear-cut: men subverting their nation’s creed in the name of patriotism, the president defending them in court after calling them crooks during the campaign. The Blog will attempt to interpret, but luckily, dear reader, you can hear opinions straight from horses’ mouths. Here are two cases from those who cite Lincoln: “the dogmas of the quiet past are inadequate to the stormy present;” and two from those who cite Franklin: “those who can give up essential liberty to obtain a little temporary safety deserve neither liberty nor safety.”

 

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In the wake of 9/11, the Bush Administration believed the United States needed a new way to detain, interrogate, and prosecute terrorism suspects. Terrorism is fundamentally different from other crimes, they reasoned, so America needs a fundamentally different system to handle terrorism cases.

 

Five executive branch lawyers designed the new system: Vice President Cheney’s chief of staff David Addington, AG Alberto Gonzales, Gonzales deputy Tim Flanigan, Pentagon general counsel William Haynes II, and Justice Department lawyer John Yoo. They called themselves “The War Council.”

 

In 2002, Yoo wrote an infamous memo arguing terrorism suspects were not protected by the Geneva Convention. Even if they were, Yoo later amended, their torturers could not be prosecuted because they were acting within the president’s authority to wage war. “In wartime, it is for the president alone to decide what methods to use to best prevail against the enemy,” he wrote.

 

Ever seen The Big Lebowski? When Walter offers the Dude an idiotic, simplistic plan to solve a nuanced problem, the Dude says: “That’s a great plan, Walter. F—ing ingenious, if I understand it correctly. It’s a Swiss f—ing watch.”

 

The Swiss watch designed by the War Council was this: detain suspects overseas to dodge Habeas Corpus, torture them to make them talk, then figure out what to do next—maybe trails in courts, maybe trials before military tribunals, maybe indefinite prison time.

 

When terrorism suspects were captured, they went first to Bagram Air Base outside Kabul where they were interrogated. Then they might be rendered to secret CIA-operated prisons in another country for further questioning before ending up at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba. At each stop, they were subject to torture by American military or intelligence officers. Keep in mind that none of these men (all were male) had ever stood trial, let alone been convicted or sentenced.

 

An eight-month investigation by the McClatchy News Service found many detainees had low-level or no terrorism ties. Very few ever provided reliable information; many confessions were faked to obtain mercy. But abuse in the prisons was nearly ubiquitous, so those who weren’t terrorists became fervent anti-Americans and those who were grew in stature. New al Qaeda recruiting materials, online and elsewhere, cited Abu Ghraib, Bagram, and Guantanamo as evidence of America’s inhumanity. It’s easier to believe in a Great Satan when there’s photographic evidence.

 

There has to be a better way. We may need new tools to confront these new crimes, but those tools must be forged in the same furnace which has always smoldered at our nation’s core: respect for the dignity of humankind.

 

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Why is Gitmo so important? Americans are not bound by common faith or race, creed or color. What holds us together as a nation are the truths we hold to be self evident—that all people are endowed by their creator with certain inalienable rights, and that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. Those truths are all we have; lose sight of them and you lose sight of what it means to be American.

 

Nobody said being history’s bearer of freedom would be easy. We may be tempted by the bright apple of security on the cheap. But as has been asked before, “What is a man profited if he should gain the whole world but forfeit his soul?” If we concede liberty to ensure our security, we concede our nation’s soul, a forfeiture which far outweighs whatever we might gain.

 

On Deck: The Most Deliberative Body

All eyes on the Senate this week. For one, they’ll vote on the stimulus. Obama lost the battle to define the bill, so now the burden to pass it falls to centrists in the upper chamber. This means the White House still has to be nice to Republicans. Look for more spending on infrastructure and more tax cuts in the final version.

 

Also, think any more cabinet or sub-cabinet nominees will be allowed to have tax problems? The Blog doubts it.